Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cecilia Fire Thunder Suspended

Here's the article.

In case it's available only for a limited time online, I'm reproducing it below:

Tribal council outlaws abortion President suspended for alleged donations
May 31, 2006

The Oglala Sioux tribal council banned all abortions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and suspended President Cecelia Fire Thunder on Tuesday, charging that she solicited donations on behalf of the tribe for a proposed abortion clinic without the council's approval.

"It was unauthorized political activity," said Will Peters, a tribal council representative from the Pine Ridge district. "It's just a matter of failing to communicate not only with the governing body but with the people that she was elected to serve."

Peters made a motion to suspend Fire Thunder indefinitely, and when that failed, voted to suspend her for 20 days until an impeachment hearing could take place. That motion passed.

"This whole thing was an ambush," Fire Thunder said, adding that she never solicited donations and never was asked whether she had actually accepted any money.

Peters said any money donated to the tribe for the clinic would be returned.

Fire Thunder said the idea never was to open a clinic that performs abortions - she never used the word "abortion," she said - but rather to open a women's health facility that would provide family planning information and emergency and traditional contraceptives.

"Women need services. Women need support. Right now on the Pine Ridge reservation, there's very little support for women who have been raped," Fire Thunder said.

"If that's the way it was presented to people in the first place, I think she would have been OK," Peters said. "Her stand, by what we read and what we hear from all accounts, was to support abortion. I've never seen such a turn-around."

Some in the tribe were outraged when Fire Thunder, responding to Gov. Mike Rounds' signature on a bill that would ban most abortions in South Dakota, said she would work to open a Planned Parenthood clinic on the reservation, beyond the reach of state law. Many believe abortion to be against Lakota values.

Planned Parenthood issued a press release thanking Fire Thunder, but said it had no plans to open a clinic in Pine Ridge or anywhere else in South Dakota.

Today, the tribe banned abortions on the reservation.

"I do not feel comfortable telling a woman what she can or can't do with her body," Peters said. "Yet at the same time, I share the cultural viewpoint that life is sacred."

But the clinic, which will be called Sacred Choices, already has a group of women who have agreed to form a board of directors.

Betty Bull Bear, one of the women on the board, said the group would meet tonight for the first time to sign articles of incorporation.

She said Sacred Choices would be a wellness center, and the board would wait to see what happens with a statewide abortion ban referendum and any subsequent legal challenges before deciding whether to attempt to provide any abortion services.

Either way, Sacred Choices will be in Kyle, Bull Bear said.

"This is where Cecelia is from," she said. "It was her idea." But, she added, Fire Thunder is not involved now that the board has been formed.

"We have a lot of support, nationwide and, literally, globally," Bull Bear said, though she estimated support among tribal members was evenly divided.

Fire Thunder, in Iowa for an annual test of the cochlear implants that restored her hearing four years ago, said the people who brought the complaint were the same people who have been opposing her presidency since she was elected in November 2004.

"It got crazy," Fire Thunder said. "On Friday they were passing around a flyer that said 'Wilma Mankiller - Cecelia Babykiller.' "

Mankiller was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Fire Thunder is the first female president of the Oglala Sioux.

Fire Thunder also was suspended last October when the tribal council accepted a complaint brought by William Birdnecklace Tate, who alleged she had improperly secured a $38 million loan from the Shakopee, a Minnesota tribe. What was supposed to be a 20-day suspension lasted more than two months when Fire Thunder's hearing was delayed repeatedly by holidays and booked gymnasiums. The council eventually voted not to impeach her.

Peters was one of the few strong supporters on the council during Fire Thunder's previous troubles.

But "she is a hard gal to look after," Peters said. "I just believe that she has fallen out of touch with the people she was elected to represent."

But it seems that many articles quote Fire Thunder as saying that the clinic would indeed offer abortion services. Here is one interview with her in which she makes that clear.

And it does look, from a quick Google search, that she has at least encouraged donations for the effort. But what I suspect happened is this: her comments were greeted with resounding support, and people wanted to help the cause. I know that Planned Parenthood shortly thereafter made a statement that it was not interested in opening a clinic on the reservation, that it was confident that its Sioux Falls clinic would remain open, but that it appreciated Fire Thunder's support. But I imagine that several people did send checks, anyway. I have not read that Fire Thunder actively solicited donations.

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